Progress in dentistry (by Tom Dillard)

by on February 3, 2014

January 26, 2014
Progress in dentistry
Author: Tom Dillard

With a dental appointment looming, I have been thinking about dentistry lately. I grew up in the days before dentists applied painkiller to the gums before injecting what seemed like a huge needle of Novocain. The actual dental work was a piece of cake, but the fear of the anesthetic caused me to loathe a visit to the dentist. Compared to what my ancestors endured, I had it easy, and modern dentistry is practically pain-free-excepting paying the bill.
The record is unclear, but based on advertisements in the Arkansas Gazette, it seems the first dentists came to Arkansas around 1830 during the territorial period. These early dentists were itinerants, plying their trade for a few weeks then moving on to a new town. The first itinerant dentist of record in Little Rock was William Kilgore, who advertised his services as a “surgeon dentist” on Nov. 24, 1830. He offered to “insert teeth, clean out and plug hollow teeth, make them ! almost as good as new, take the tartar or scurvy from them, and destroy its ravages . . . .”
Another itinerant practitioner advertised in 1832 the ability to “insert from a single one to an entire set of human or animal teeth in the most scientific and skillful manner.”
Dr. William Rudd is believed to have been one of the most extensively traveled of the itinerant dentists in antebellum Arkansas. During the Civil War, Rudd fought under General Jo Shelby, and afterward he accompanied Shelby to Mexico where he was a soldier of fortune. Returning to Arkansas after two years, Rudd resumed his traveling practice and was still practicing as an elderly man in 1896.
Before 1900, most dental offices were simple affairs with few electrical tools being available. A reclining examination chair was a luxury except in urban areas. Dr. J.W. Barnett, who opened his Little Rock office not long after graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1901, remembered “office equipment in the early days consisted of chair and foot engine; a spittoon hooked to the chair, which was emptied at the end of the day; a bowl and a pitcher for water with which to wash the hands.” By “foot engine” Dr. Barnett meant a foot-powered tool for drilling and buffing.
These early dentists were not usually college trained. Most studied under a practicing dentist, just as most medical doctors studied with local physicians and most lawyers “read” law with a local attorney. In 1887 the state adopted legislation creating a board of dental examiners to regulate dentistry, though it was well into the20th Century before comprehensive legislation was adopted.
Much of the motivation for professionalism came from the dentists themselves. A group of concerned dentists, noting the work being done in other states, organized the Arkansas State Dental Association in January 1887. The Association stressed the need for professional training, insisting that two years’ study with a practicing dentist should be the minimum. The first president was Dr. R.D. Seals, a Confederate veteran and resident of Fort Smith. Dr. Turner M. Milam, also a Confederate veteran and early leader of the state association, was described as “one of the best gold foil and gold bridge-work dentists in Arkansas.” Milam is said to be Arkansas’s first orthodontist.
The Arkansas legislature did not get around to requiring dentists to be graduates of recognized
dental schools until 1915, but exemptions and special circumstances left many loopholes. In 1921 the state provided for the licensing of dental hygienists. The Arkansas Dental Practice Act of 1955 brought modern oversight to the practice of dentistry.
Arkansas was home to a number of prominent black dentists. Dr. Jerry Jewell of Little Rock was elected to the state Senate in 1972, the first black senator in the 20th Century. Perhaps the most remarkable black dentist, however, was Dr. James Henry Smithof Little Rock. Opening his practice on Main Street in 1878, Smith was the only black dentist in the capital city for many years.
Smith’s fame as a dentist spread far and wide, and there is some indication he had some white patients which, if true, would have been remarkable considering the rigid constraints of the Jim Crow era. Smith was also well known for his host of community activities and for his creative personality. He was something of an artist, and his home at 707 Broadway was adorned with murals of his own painting.
Dr. Smith held a number of patents, including a peach stoner which was produced for many years. He was also a writer, and in 1906 published the first novel by a black Arkansan, Maudelle: A Novel Founded on the Facts Gathered from Living Witnesses. This is an exceedingly rare book, with the Library of Congress having the only known copies. Smith’s daughter Florence married a local Little Rock lawyer, Thomas Price, and later moved to Chicago, where she became a renowned composer and musician.
If my dentist reads this, please have pity. A nice Valium would settle the nerves of this dentiphobe.


Tom Dillard, a historian and retired archivist living in Pulaski County, is taking some time off. An earlier version of this column appeared March 29, 2009.
Copyright 2014, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Record Number: 542513

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